Guest Author, Josh Hill – One often hears references to the “real world” in education as if within the walls of the school we are somehow somewhere else. I believe this idiom is a symptom of a larger mindset, one that John Dewey warned of a century ago. Dewey was troubled that what was taught in school was thought of as essentially “static”, presented as a finished product “with little regard to the ways in which it was originally built up or to the changes that will surely occur in the future”. Not much has changed…
To quote Neil Stephenson: “One does not have to look far today to see examples of how the ‘schooliness’ of the subjects we teach are either pale versions of the authentic disciplines, or in some cases, so contorted as to be unrecognizable.”
Take the math “problem” used as the title of this blog as an example, I encountered it when middle school student brought it to my drop in lunch extra help room; I was delighted to hear the student mockingly comment: “Instead of going to the trouble of counting legs why wouldn’t Bill just count the cows and chickens?” Word “problems,” such as the one referenced above, commonly found in math worksheets and textbooks bear little resemblance to the mathematics that mathematicians, physicists, and engineers experience. Not only are these problems devoid of real context they completely fail to foster the higher order thinking skills inherent in mathematics. Wikipedia suggests that mathematicians “seek out patterns formulate new conjectures and establish truth by rigorous deduction from appropriately chosen axioms and definitions.” Too often school math, in contrast, encourages mindless application of algorithms or formulas, where accuracy in computation is mistaken for excellence in understanding and problem solving.
Dewey famously commented: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself“ and believed in an “intimate and necessary relationship between the processes of actual experiences and education”. He called for an educational system where children came to school to do things and live in a community that would give them real, guided experiences and foster their capacity to contribute to society. I love this definition of authentic math provided by Jardine, Clifford and Friesen in their book Back to the Basics of Teaching and Learning: “Authentic Instruction aims to have children experience mathematics as a powerful language of the imagination that allows them to explore big mathematical ideas like balance, space, time, patterns and relationships”. According to Jardine, Clifford and Friesen authentic instruction demands that:
Each task faced in the classroom is precisely not an isolated fragment which must be quickly covered and then dropped in order to get on to the next bit. Rather, classroom and curriculum topics, conversations, and events are treated as ways in to the whole of the living inheritances that have been handed to teachers and students in schools. One is never “doing” an isolated fragment, but is always “doing” the whole living field from a particular locale. Particular events are “read” or “treated” as a part of some longstanding whole to which it belongs and from which it gains its sense and significance.
How might it look in a classroom if teachers set about to make math real? How might it look in a classroom if teachers looked to the real world disciplines they teach for guidance as to the questions and workflow they design for their students?
How might it look in a school if teachers grounded learning in the real world context with which it lives?
It is precisely this question that I hope to explore in this blog series. I hope you’ll consider joining me in this journey and contributing your thoughts below.
About the author:
I am a grade 7 & 9 humanities teacher and peer instructional coach at Langdon school. In my role as a coach I have the opportunity to provide support to teachers throughout our k-9 school as they strive to design learning opportunities that facilitate the acquisition of 21st century skills. I am currently working on my MA in Education Technology Leadership at the University of Calgary. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and 2009 recipient of an Alberta Excellence in Teaching Award.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Indianapolis , IN: Kappa Delta Pi.
Jardine, D. Clifford, P. & Friesen, S. (2003). Back to the basics of teaching and learning: Thinking the world together. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlabaum Associates, Inc.